An employee unloads chickens off of a truck at the Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant on the corner of Broad and Main Streets in Chattanooga in this file photo.Photo by Kathleen Greeson
Pilgrim's Pride is cutting 85 jobs today from its Chattanooga poultry processing plants and said more may come.
The Greeley, Colo., company said it is streamlining operations at its two downtown Chattanooga plants and boosting productivity at other plants.
"I don't think it's right," said Ray Fortson as he left the Market Street plant Thursday afternoon.
Fortson has worked at the plant for 20 years and will keep his job, but he knows some people who work the plant's third shift that are being laid off.
"The company's not telling us anything," he said. "I just wish things would change around for the better."
In 2011, Pilgrim's Pride employed 1,500 people in Chattanooga.
Company officials were unable to be reached for comment Thursday.
Pilgrim's Pride is still evaluating other processes and will know in the next few weeks whether any additional jobs will be cut, the company said in a statement. The company will help those laid off with unemployment filings and related processes.
Complex Manager Tim Lawson said in a statement he "is confident that the changes will help Chattanooga and Pilgrim's be successful in the years ahead" and that "Chattanooga is and will remain an important asset for Pilgrim's."
Over the past several years the poultry industry has shown strong growth, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. In 2009, broilers accounted for $442 million in Tennessee, 14.8 percent of farm receipts. In 2010, those numbers grew to $476 million, 15.4 percent of farm receipts.
So Joe Gains, assistant commissioner at the department, was surprised to hear of Pilgrim's layoffs.
"We've seen a lot of development in our state with companies building facilities in our state and contracting farmers," he said. "We like them. They're good, clean industries."
Historically, poultry production hasn't been as prolific in Tennessee as in neighboring states. When farmers became concerned with poultry disease spreading due to proximity, Tennessee's spread-out chicken population became an increasingly attractive place to locate operations.
Today, poultry regularly swaps places with soybeans and beef cattle as the top three agricultural products in the state.